22 May 2012

Woolwich Equitable?

The American colonies grew restless - Dial Arch

South East London is another country, off the Frank Pick mind map. South East Trains like to keep it that way with their obtuse and lethargic rail services. But in the last few years the DLR has tunnelled under the river to reach Woolwich and by 2018 Crossrail will whizz you to the Arsenal in minutes (just don’t ask about the price tag). Inevitably this means big change and development for which a new masterplan has been produced by Allies and Morrison. We went to check it out.

Smells like a bag of glacier mints - Tate & Lyle 

The DLR is like a clockwork train set but is fun and you get great views although not always uplifting ones. The train rattles through an extraordinary (actually very ordinary) jungle of vastly over-scaled new flats with no semblance of urban structure or street life. The only sign of human spirit is the bikes on the myriad tiny balconies. You can see that fine Brutalist icon, Robin Hood Gardens, apparently condemned to destruction and to be replaced by new housing seven times denser than the Smithson scheme so hated by the authorities. (Can this be true or am I on a bad trip?) To the right are the sinister towers of Canary Wharf displaying the names of our real and spectacularly incompetent rulers like J.P. Morgan. Beyond the River Lea you enter a more fragmented world where shiny new development sits alongside vast dereliction and the remains of industrial Thameside, like the massive Tate and Lyle works which certainly makes its presence felt, or smelt. Planes make terrifying looking landings at City Airport. Silvertown survives amidst all this with that amazing Teulon church towering over it. The DLR dives into a tunnel and you alight at its elegantly understated Arsenal station.

The Arsenal Gate

The arsenal, docks and barracks were an amazing phenomenon indeed. Despite its relative isolation today, Woolwich has long been at the centre of world affairs and represents a different expression of Britain’s maritime prowess than nearby Greenwich.  Some of this is writ large in the sixteenth century naval paintings at Queen's House at Greenwich, and if ever foul art represented an equally foul age, then Philip and Mary by Hans Eworth is a must see. That aside, from the Tudors to the C20th Woolwich owed its importance to the demands of British naval belligerence, and the sheer number of employees gave the place the scale of a provincial town.

Taking aim at waterside regeneration (again)

The late Georgian period of jingoism and social repression was particularly prolific for Woolwich; the dry docks, superintendent’s office, barracks and Vanbrughian arsenal are all both brilliant and horrific reminders. Yet it was not to last: the shipbuilding docks were shipped to the North East - a response to organised labour and the comparative price of coal. The Royal Arsenal lasted another hundred years or so (75,000 were employed here during WWI) and was a major centre for engineering, often attracted migrants from the industrial provinces. The legend goes that it was two Nottingham engineers who used their old Garibaldi kit to form Woolwich Arsenal FC, which decamped to north London in 1913.

Gormless street life at the Royal Arsenal

The Woolwich Arsenal redevelopment is part of that immense but hazy Heseltine/Prescott concept – the Thames Gateway. Despite vast public investment (no fewer than 6 cross river railways built or under construction) little has been achieved besides ubiquitous yuppiedromes, many more of which are planned around the Royals and indeed at Arsenal. Meanwhile sensible schemes like Barking Riverside which would provide desperately needed affordable housing for families are stymied by lack of funding for schools and modest transport links – not sexy enough for Boris.

Dry dock entrance overlooked by our incompetent rulers

The Thames certainly draws you but at Woolwich it has an alienated and melancholy feel. You have great views of what went wrong in the built environment when politicians handed control of the country to financial empires. From a distance Canary Wharf looks like some banal cartoon imagination of what a city should look like. The Shard is nicely framed between Mammon’s ordinary towers. Complexes of gated flats mournfully survey their riverside ‘stunning views’. But the interest of the river itself makes up for the bleakness of development along its banks. The occasional river traffic of freighters and barges adds excitement and best of all is that wonderful institution, the free Woolwich ferry, the vessel brilliantly named Ernest Bevin. Boris wants to move this vehicle ferry which makes Woolwich feel like a mini channel port, but it is really important to the character of the place. There is also an Edwardian foot tunnel, currently being renovated.

70s Council housing at the former dockyards

The Thames is the life force of Woolwich and the town grew up between the Arsenal and the Naval Dockyard. There is little left of the old High Street and the Dockyard was closed in 1869. The Borough redeveloped part of it as housing in the 70s, retaining the dock wall but turning the small docks into a sort of giant’s garden pond, in the middle of which sits a rather fine streamlined clubhouse, now derelict. There is however a lot of community provision within the estate including a community centre in the handsome late C18th Dutch style dock offices. We continued towards the Thames Barrier through an extensive industrial zone containing many buildings with intriguing possibilities for new Hackneyesque uses, except this is Zone 4.

Saving London - The Thames Barrier

The Thames Barrier is beautiful and very satisfying. Here we have an icon which actually has a purpose. Since it was completed in 1982 the barrier has been closed to protect against storm surges with increasing frequency. The feelings the structure engenders are of huge power but also tranquillity. The covered concrete pedestrian walkway under the barrier is like a cloister and the boat shaped stainless steel caps of the massive piers in the river glisten in the sun and on the water. Across the river is the superb Barrier Park designed by Patel Taylor, unfortunately not directly accessible from the Woolwich bank but unmissable. It is in a frankly unpromising location - the quite elegant moderne apartments to the west refuse to engage with it and those to the east are truly horrendous - but the park manages to create a strong sense of place, interest and visual order. It is very well used by people who don’t look like yuppies – the best thing about Docklands for me.

John Nash meets Sam Scorer

Although the river is important to Woolwich the more obvious topographical feature of the place is the hills – lots of them, steep and sudden. Up the hill out of the town centre and facing Woolwich Common you find the late C18th Woolwich Barracks, which are positively amazing. As Ian Nairn said ‘no need to go to Leningrad; come to Woolwich instead and see the yellow brick march out for a quarter of a mile or more. It won’t stand up to a close look but the first astounding view enfilade….is worth all the subsequent disappointment’. You won’t get a close look anyway because the barracks have, surprisingly, not been sold for stunning apartments but refurbished as – barracks. The Lend Lease sign confirms some bonkers funding deal. This is no longer the home of the Royal Artillery but because of historic associations a temporary Olympic shooting venue is nearing completion opposite, looking like a vast tent. It is unlikely that this utilitarian colossus was inspired by Nash’s eccentric tent structure nearby which was moved here in 1819. It was given a lead roof and an inner skin with the original sailcloth left between. Despite ferocious razor wire perimeter fences you can walk around outside it but can’t get inside.

Cue The Imperial March - the Barracks

In the C19th Woolwich grew towards the Barracks, very much as a town in its own right rather than a suburb of the Great Wen. Ian Nairn perceptibly saw it as a provincial centre that has got embedded in London by mistake. He talks of its ‘thumping self-centred vitality; complete freedom from the morning train to town’. Well yes, 40 years on you can still see that, although Luton is the comparator that comes to mind. But Woolwich was also part of the LCC, so actually inner London and is now merged into the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

There's a butterfly circling the estate - St Mary's

Most of the jumble of terraces that clothed the hillsides was swept away in large scale post war redevelopment but what survives shows the very distinct character of the place. Woolwich with characteristic independence undertook London’s first post war Comprehensive Redevelopment Area at St Mary’s. Although the layout of maisonettes and 14 storey blocks does not make the most of the site, the towers with their butterfly plan are still impressive and the estate as a whole looks well cared for. Nearby at Parish Wharf there is an attractive small estate of self-build houses to Walter Segal’s model, which looks a rather better bet for Grant Shapps’s self build bonanza than Almere.

The system works...

...in a social democracy

The Morris Walk Estate was the LCC’s first example of system building begun in 1963. It employed the Larsen-Nielsen heavy concrete panel system which had been built successfully in the Netherlands for 10 years but when applied in London it was down-specified to save money; balconies were omitted and heating and insulation were poor, leading to serious problems. Nevertheless the Larsen-Nielsen system was used extensively elsewhere in London and Pevsner calls the blocks drearily familiar. Set in extensive landscaping the initial impression of the estate is favourable but the inner courts are fairly grim. The blocks with names like Elsinore House, in homage to their Danish origins, are apparently scheduled for demolition rather than renovation, although this cannot be economic or sustainable. At about the time the estate was completed Antonioni shot his 1967 Mod masterpiece ‘Blow Up’ in the adjacent Maryon Park. The tennis court is still there but as we know the body isn’t.

A definite change in topography

There are lots of parks on the hills behind the town centre and the late Victorian and Edwardian suburbs are pleasant enough like any provincial town. The most interesting find is a short terrace of houses by Lubetkin (1935) with beautiful curved concrete balconies and delightful garden walls – no gates. Next to Woolwich Common is the extensive Nightingale Place council estate on a dramatic sloping site and exhibiting changing housing ideals from the 60s to the 70s. The most successful are the stepped-back terraces facing the Common.

A bit of respect for the pedestrian - Arsenal Gate

Taming the dual carriage-way

The epicentre of Woolwich is Beresford Square in front of the Arsenal Gate. Here is a lively street market which lives up to Nairn’s enthusiastic billing but with the traffic now removed. The recent repaving by Gustafson Porter doesn’t really need to do much, and doesn’t. The Arsenal Gate, once the main entry to the armaments complex, is now cut off from it by a dual carriageway which acts as a physical, psychological and symbolic barrier between the town centre and the regeneration zone. This severance has recently been addressed in a largely successfully public realm enhancement designed by Witherford Watson Mann. The key component is a broad pedestrian crossing zone where the traffic is held back so that at least temporarily the pedestrian actually ‘owns’ the space. What was a broad no man’s land between the dual carriageway and the shops on the old road line has been repaved. This is a simple but effective scheme with nicely detailed granite subtly showing the line of the demolished Arsenal walls and it has well considered tree planting. It now provides a civilised arrival point for bus passengers and a much better context for the very run down covered market with its highly eclectic stalls. If the main pedestrian route to the crossing had actually been through the Arsenal Gate it would have been better, but as with the Magazine Gate in Leicester this seems to have been a conceptual step too far.

Deco corner

Woolwich Polytechnic, twinned with Leicester

Powis Street, the main shopping parade, leads off Beresford Square. Nairn observed it as ‘a commercial gold mine (which) has come down from the Midland cities and in the process lost its Midland drabness and taken on alertness and savoir faire’. It is certainly like the high street of a small provincial city and bearing many of the signs of decline you find in most. Although still lively it seems to have lost its saviour faire and shows the wounds of last summer’s riots. Its claim to social history and gastronomic fame is that here the first McDonald’s in Britain was opened in 1974 – before that we only had Wimpy Bars. Stranded at the end of the street are fine relics of former glory. Two Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society department stores face each other across the street, both empty – the 1903 effort in what Pevsner calls ‘the approved Harrod’s style’ and the 1938 Modernistic building with a striking tower. Tellingly the art nouveau building is being converted to a hotel whilst modernism decays. The adjacent former Granada cinema is in a modest brick Dudok style but with an exhilarating tower. The former Odeon framing the end of the street is a grand cream faience concoction, reborn as the New Wine Church.


When Nairn remarks of Woolwich ‘it is always being rebuilt as it must be – that is its nature’ I doubt he would have envisaged what is happening to the place today. Whilst Powis Street languishes, the largest Tesco in Europe is under construction off Woolwich New Road. Designed by Sheppard Robson this is a new generation ‘Tesco Town’ incorporating other shops and 920 apartments some of which will be ‘affordable’. It will be the companion to the ‘New Woolwich Centre’ or town hall on Wellington Street designed by HLM and cited in last year’s Carbuncle Cup as ‘spectacularly awful’. It is certainly a missed opportunity – big, bland and faceless. The glass entrance relies for interest on reflections of the Edwardian Baroque town hall opposite. The architect’s illustration tellingly majors on views by night. But it is public and accessible and incorporates a large new library. Civic pride and ambition is now so circumscribed and apologetic that buildings like this are what you get, so no wonder we are nostalgic for the Edwardian affair opposite with its spectacular showy entrance hall, at least still open to the public. And what a pity that in this Depression we can’t achieve the style, confidence, elegance and pleasure of Greenwich Town Hall built in the 30s, its use usurped by the HLM effort.

Not quite Old Market Square

Illustrations of Tesco Town certainly put it in the running for a future Carbuncle award. It looms over General Gordon Square facing the erstwhile Woolwich Equitable HQ, Baroque Moderne of 1932 and described by Pevsner as solid and stodgy – well just what you expect of a Mutual. Now the Woolwich is part of the Barclay’s empire so obviously the building is not spivvy enough and sits there empty, probably disapproving of the new square by Gustafson Porter. This is attempting to make something of what had been a neglected but important place, with the petite Arsenal rail station at its corner. The result is nothing like as good as their brilliant Old Market Square in Nottingham, although here I am plainly biased. The problem seems to be that the square is unsure of its purpose. It is not really a comfortable people-watching space like Sheffield’s Peace Gardens because it lacks intimacy, enclosure and comfortable seating. The layout is formalised and inflexible, not designed for events. It has a nervous feel and just does not seem like a place that welcomes people. There is a strong sense of Haussmann-like sight lines for CCTV whilst a massive screen plays TV news to itself in the background, just like at your Nan’s house. The skim of water for paddling is a lot of fun though.

What if this was council housing? Arsenal regeneration

Taken together the public realm improvements in the town centre certainly have a positive impact and help to bridge the divide between the town centre and the parallel world of the Royal Arsenal. Woolwich is one of the most deprived places in the country and the unemployment rate in the Riverside ward is the second highest in London. You might think that the regeneration of the Arsenal site could have been focused on employment opportunities for local people but in Blair-world the orthodoxy of trickle down was absolute. Despite its manifest failures, so it is today.

Trickling upwards - No1 Street Royal Arsenal

As waterside regeneration schemes go the Arsenal has more coherence than most. It retains a lot of significant buildings, some attributed to Vanbrugh, laid out on a formal axis from Beresford Square to the river. These dignified, sombre, usually simple classical structures provide a fairly clear framework for new buildings and a restraint on excess, although ignorant aping of Vanbrughian style is less successful than more simply expressed modern blocks. The character of this part of the Arsenal is weird, a bit like scenes from The Prisoner where everything is carefully manipulated and depersonalised. Pevsner said the abandoned Arsenal was eerie and desolate and it remains that despite the redevelopment. It contains public uses like a Heritage Centre and ‘Firepower’, a museum of the Royal Artillery; there is an esplanade and you could find a few pubs but it is lacking life and spontaneity. The neo-Gormley figures on the waterfront can’t help being alienating and for me it certainly does not help to have a tank outside the military museum training its sights down the axial avenue. The new formula Arsenal is a quintessential yuppiedrome, a place deliberately apart from Woolwich. But since Woolwich is one of the cheapest housing areas in London (not a bad thing) it is a cut price yuppiedrome. This is even more apparent in the earlier Barratt phases to the east where bog standard flats rear up on the riverfront with standard Noddy house suburbia behind.

Coming soon - an English Heritage book on the Co-operative

This is Woolwich today– what does the future hold? The Town Centre Masterplan vision can be summed up as ‘back to the future’. It apparently does not recognise the failures of grand regeneration projects to benefit local communities. There is no sense of the profound failures of the housing markets and of trickle down economics. Localism, which could in theory point to a quite different future where the development of the town centre focused on the needs and wishes of local people, is not on the horizon. So we are apparently condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. Some of the proposals are sensible, if not very specific, like strengthening retailing on Powis Street and re-use of the Modernistic Co-op. It actually suggests the Dudok Granada becomes a cinema again. But what does ‘fine grain intensification area’ actually mean for the area around the covered market and the market itself? On another plan it is a ‘future development area’.

The Royal Arsenal: level 4 of Sim Yuppie

Really the focus is on large scale apartment building on the back of Crossrail. Berkeley Homes are paying for the new Crossrail station and so will develop 4,500 new housing units around it. The new ‘planning gain’ station is presented by the government as a fantastic deal at no cost to the taxpayer but this rather overlooks the £15.9 billion cost of Crossrail itself. This public largesse will massively increase the value of the new Arsenal developments but this is unlikely to be reflected in the quality of design and place. The masterplan model is certainly not encouraging, suggesting yet more of the bombastic perimeter block and attempted vistas but without the context of the historic buildings, so pretty bland.

Sport for all - the Waterfront Leisure Centre

One of the masterplan proposals nicely sums up the implications of the application of urban design in the service of developers. The Waterfront Leisure Centre, built in that ubiquitous Thatcherite brick and mirror glass in blue frames style, sits next to the ferry terminal on what is now considered as prime real estate. It also blocks off the axis from Hare Street to the riverside esplanade and the entrance to the foot tunnel. The masterplan wants to sweep it away and open up a grand new vista flanked by yet more vibrant mixed use development. A new leisure centre would be built on a ‘more central’ site yet unspecified. Well yes, I see the urban design point and the Leisure Centre is not a lovely thing (although the sight of the flume brought back happy memories). But is this being done in the interests of local people who use the Leisure Centre and can’t afford private health clubs or are they being marginalised in yet another expression of the shocking divide between rich and poor in this country and is this equitable? It is worth asking the question.

Thanks to Douglas Murphy, Agata Pyzik and Owen Hatherley for their insights and company on our tour.


Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner - London 2: South
Ian Nairn – Nairn’s London
Ellis Woodman in Building Design
Allies and Morrison – Woolwich Town Centre Masterplan
English Heritage – Survey of London Volume 48 Woolwich

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